All-Belarusian Final At Ostrava Was All Sabalenka

WASHINGTON/OSTRAVA, October 25, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka, the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds respectively in this week’s WTA Premier J&T Banka Ostrava Open, battled inside cavernous Ostravar Arena Sunday in the second-to-last singles title match of the season. The last one will happen in Linz, Austria in three weeks.

What was remarkable about this week’s title match was these two marvelously talented and likable athletes comprised the first all-Belarusian WTA singles final. That it happened at this inaugural event being held in the northeast Czech Republic, about 15 kilometers from the border with Poland – and just 10 hours by car via the M6 highway from Minsk in Belarus, where both were born – is pure coincidence.

It’s too bad that due to the world pandemic, no spectators were allowed to attend Sunday’s final. Instead, everyone relied upon worldwide broadcast TV, internet streaming or social media to follow all of the colorful action that the World No. 12 Sabalenka and World No. 14 Azarenka provided.

It’s also too bad that this much-anticipated final was all too brief – just 68 minutes – and was underscored by Azarenka battling a migraine headache through much of the final set. It’s debatable whether it defined the outcome. That’s because Sabalenka delivered a near-flawless performance – maintaining control from first ball to last ball – and won 6-2, 6-2 to lift her second champion’s trophy of 2020.

After the trophy ceremony, Azarenka addressed her condition with a small group of reporters during her post-match videoconference.

“I started to feel bad yesterday; I had a really bad migraine,” she said. “It sometimes happens. It was significant. I felt better this morning, but the effect of playing under the lights, where I have some sensitivity, triggered a reaction which was very unfortunate for me. It is what it is.” 

When Tennis TourTalk asked Azarenka if she gave any consideration to retiring during the match, she replied: “I think it would have been better because of my condition, but I wanted to see if I could feel better during the match. I took it as a challenge for myself and to find a solution. I’m proud I was able to go through with it.”

Despite their age difference – Azarenka is 31 and Sabalenka 22 – the two have shared some history on the tennis court. Prior to Sunday, they faced each other twice and each had won once. Both times, they played against each other at the US Open. Sabalenka won a first-round three-setter in 2019, but Azarenka prevailed in their most recent clash, winning in straight sets in the second round this year, during her excellent run to the final.

Both came into the Ostrava final resilient and seeking their second WTA singles titles of the season. While Sabalenka earned her sixth career title in Doha back in February, Azarenka won her 21st career title – and first since 2016 – more recently, in August at the Western & Southern Open in New York. Although Ostrava marked Sabalenka’s 11 career final, it was the 40th for Azarenka – and her third this season.

Before the match, Sabalenka said the all-Belarusian final was “big for our country. Everybody is excited to see this final. This is the big sensation for Belarus. For me it’s something special.”

Afterward, during her videoconference with reporters, Sabalenka was asked by Tennis TourTalk about her determination to do what was necessary to win. She said: “I knew I had to be focused from the first point and to control my emotions.”

The tone for the title match – punctuated by controlled aggression and long rallies – was set from the outset as Sabalenka fired a sizzling, forehand passing shot to cap a 14-shot rally on the very first point of the match. Then, she earned two break points against Azarenka with good hustle and shot selection. However, Azarenka steadied herself from down 15-40 and held serve. Later, at 2-all, Sabalenka gained three break-point chances and broke at love with a forehand winner. She consolidated the break with a service winner to go ahead 4-2, and broke Azarenka for the second straight time with a forehand winner – her 16th of the set – off a net-cord to gain a double-break 5-2 lead. Sabalenka gained a three set points and won the 35-minute opening set 6-2 with a backhand winner – a stunning end to the first set. She outpointed Azarenka 31-19 by winning 74 percent (17 of 23) of her service points – not facing any break points – and winning 52 percent (14 of 27) of her receiving points.

“I knew there would be long rallies and that I would need to be able to move really well to get the points,” Sabalenka said.I prepared myself well for this match and it didn’t surprise me. It was a great start. The first eight games were really high level. I’m glad I was able to handle the level from [Vika] and stay really long in the rallies.”

The second set began with both holding serve. However, Azarenka signaled for the trainer to come out during the third-game changeover. Something didn’t seem right about her lack of mobility or ability to go chasing after balls in the corners. Sabalenka gained three break points at 0-40 on Azarenka’s next service game and broke at love with a demonstrative forehand winner that ended an eight-shot rally to go ahead 2-1. During the medical time out, Azarenka was given some medication to alleviate her condition. Then, she laid down in front of her bench while the trainer massaged the temples on both sides of her head.

After play resumed, Sabalenka gained an easy hold for 3-1 and continued to play from the advantage of being ahead. Then, she went up a double break with a forehand winner off a weak Azarenka first serve for a 4-1 lead. Although Azarenka got one of the breaks back with a backhand winner, she was unable to hold serve as Sabalenka broke with a backhand winner deep in the corner to lead 5-2. Now, she needed only to hold serve in order to capture the title.

Soon, Sabalenka closed out the straight-set title victory with a service winner to Azarenka’s backhand. She celebrated by pumping her right arm and fist proudly toward her team and blew a kiss with her right hand toward the heavens.

“I’m really happy for this win. It’s important for me,” she said.

The younger Belarusian, Sabalenka, finished strongly. She won 77 percent (23 of 30) of her first-serve points, dropped serve just once and broke Azarenka five times in seven tries. Sabalenka outpointed Azarenka 57-36 as she maintained control throughout the entire match. It all added up to her lifting her second singles trophy of 2020.

Double duty for Sabalenka

Sunday meant double duty for Sabalenka. Following the singles final, she and her partner Elise Mertens of Belgium, who together comprised the top-seeded team, defeated unseeded Gaby Dabrowski of Canada and Luisa Stefani from Brazil, 6-1, 6-3, in 61 minutes to win the doubles title.

Following a remarkable 2019, in which they won titles at Indian Wells, Miami and the US Open, Sabalenka and Mertens were playing in just their first doubles final of 2020. Meanwhile, this was the first time as a team for Dabrowski and Stefani, who are no strangers to being doubles contenders. Dabrowski is a nine-time titlist who frequently teams with Jelena Ostapenko, while Stefani has won two titles, including one this year with her usual partner Hayley Carter of the United States.

“Aryna played really this week, both singles and doubles. We played a really consistent level, especially in the final,” said Mertens. “We had a good combination.”

Sabalenka added: “It’s the last tournament of the year for us and winning a trophy was important. We had amazing energy together. This was an amazing week for us. Hopefully many more good tournaments to come.”

Mertens was asked what makes her and Sabalenka such a good doubles team despite their different personalities. She said: “We’re quite different, I think that’s why we match. She’s the hard hitter and I’m the one with the hands. We go 100 percent in doubles even if we’re in singles.”

Leave it to Sabalenka to get the last word in, said with a hint of laughter: “We’re young and strong!”

Ostrava Open news & notes

• American Jennifer Brady, born in Pennsylvania and now residing in Florida, came to Ostrava ranked 26th and unseeded. She beat three quality opponents – No. 29 Dayana Yastremska, No. 75 Daria Kasatkina and No. 47 Veronika Kudermetova – before losing in the semifinals to World No. 12 Aryna Sabalenka, 6-4, 6-4. When Tennis TourTalk asked Brady after her loss what positive takeaways there were this week for her, she said: “Not just looking at one match but looking over the whole week overall, I thought it was a good tournament. I had some good matches, gained a lot of confidence from them. You can’t win them all.” 

Brady, who has been in Europe since competing at last month’s French Open, will head to Germany and train with her German-born coach, Michael Geserer. She’s entered to play in the last WTA tournament of the season, the Upper Austria Ladies Linz, in Linz, Austria. However, Brady indicated she will see how she feels and how her training is progressing before making a final decision. When Brady was asked if she feels she’s become a European because of the amount of time she’s been in the continent, she smiled at the reporter’s question and erased any doubts: “I’ll always be an American at heart, that’s for sure. I love America. I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe but America is my home.”

• Initially, when No. 23 Maria Sakkari sat for her final Zoom interview of the season with a trio of reporters, not long after she had lost her semifinal match in straight sets to No. 4 seed Victoria Azarenka, she looked a bit down and dejected. The rising star from Greece began fidgeting with her smartphone. It’s understandable that following a tough, disappointing loss that ended her 2020 season with a 20-11 win-loss record, Sakkari would prefer not to dwell too much on the match. So, when Tennis TourTalk asked her to reflect on the positive aspects of her season, which included going 11-5 after the relaunch of the WTA tour, her mood began to brighten. She reflected: “Even though I lost today, I felt like I was playing some good tennis. … I think I chose the wrong tactics in the beginning, for the first set and a half. But …

“I think my game is in a good place. Now, I’ll have some time to disconnect, which I think will help me. So, I think it’s going to help me a lot the way I played this week for next year.”

Sakkari strung together wins over No. 68 Kristyna Pliskova, World No. 5 Elina Svitolina and No. 32 Ons Jabeur before losing to Azarenka, 6-1, 6-3.

“I pushed myself to work in different things like going to the net a little bit more, using my slice, serving a lot more than before. I think it was a positive because I pushed myself toward the end,” said Sakkari, who will go home to Greece and put away her racquets for a month before starting to train for next season. She said she looks forward to enjoying time with her family and friends. Then, it will be time to do some long-distance running and weight training before getting back on the court.

“To be honest, even though we didn’t play much this year, the tournaments that I played, eighty percent were successful for me. I had some very good wins, playing really good. I’m super proud, super happy with myself.”